I’ve watched my fair share of television over the years. I’ve enjoyed both dramas and sitcoms (along with reality shows, sports, documentaries, news, etc.). I think just about any genre can provide quality programming, but when viewed through the lens of the Deeply Immersive Narrative Universe, there is a clear distinction between sitcoms and dramas. Let’s do a quick test to illustrate the point:
Friends was a fun show with likeable actors and some pretty funny scripts. I’m guessing that there were roughly 200 episodes. That’s a decent sample size, I think. Now, let’s say you put all two hundred episodes on an iPod and then set the system to play the episodes in random order. If you then gave the iPod to a person who had never seen a single episode of Friends, would his enjoyment, or even understanding, of the show be greatly diminished with the episodes played in this jumbled order?
Sure the hairstyles would change, but that would almost literally be the only difference. Story arcs? Not so much. Character growth? Minimal. Perhaps the biggest single storyline of the entire run of the show was whether Rachel and Ross would be together. But they got together and split up so many times (we were on a break!), it didn’t really matter what the state of affairs was during a particular episode. I think it’s particularly hysterical that the title of each episode began with, “The one with…”, as if even the shows writers couldn’t tell one episode from another with much distinction.
Again, this isn’t a critique of the show exactly; I watched just about every week during the show’s run. And it was certainly a popular, successful show that captured the cultural zeitgeist of the time.
Now, compare Friends to another popular show of a roughly similar time period – The X Files. Yes, they had their one-off episodes, but by and large they created a mythology, a DINU that the viewers followed over the life of the show. If you jumped in only for the last four episodes on the series, you’d be utterly baffled.
Ok, well maybe sitcoms aren’t trying to create DINUs, that’s not their raison d’etre. Then I would ask, ‘why not?’ Why wouldn’t you want to build a property that creates fans to the extent The X-Files, The Sopranos and Twin Peaks did? For that matter, how about to the level The Simpsons has? Talk about a Deeply Immersive Narrative Universe. And the irony is that The Simpsons live in a world where time stands still. No one has aged and the characters haven’t really changed, yet the creators of the show have created a universe that is rich in detail, far richer than just about any show in television history.
Another example that dramas build DINUs where sitcoms do not: The Law and Order and CSI franchises. These aren’t quite spin-offs in the way Laverne & Shirley was a spin-off of Happy Days, or Cheers begat Fraser, but they clearly extend the DINU of the original shows. Can you imagine four different versions of Two and Half Men or My Name is Earl?
Maybe this is one of the reasons we see fewer and fewer traditional sitcoms on television. Certainly HBO could make a sitcom if they wanted to, but they don’t. HBO tells stories that engage viewers and by and large that means dramas like The Wire, Six Feet Under or Deadwood.
Are there, or have there been, sitcoms that strive for something a bit deeper, or does the nature of the genre preclude it? M*A*S*H wasn’t exactly your traditional sitcom, but would fall into the parameters of the genre. Certainly it is a great example of transmedia storytelling, starting off as a novel before sliding across to film, a hit television show and spin-offs that branched out quite far from the original (Trapper John, M.D. was set some 20+ years after the end of the Korean War).
That program, especially near the end of its run, developed a strong DINU, mostly through the character of Hawkeye Pierce. The show’s finale features the mental breakdown of Pierce, the lead character. Can’t quite imagine that happening on How I Met Your Mother. It’s probably no coincidence that the series finale is still the single most watched television episode in history.
I’d love to see somebody take a chance on developing a different type of sitcom where the characters do indeed grow and evolve and the storylines last more than 30 minutes. If properties as disparate as The Simpsons and M*A*S*H can achieve success through building Deeply Immersive Narrative Universes it seems worth taking a shot.